These have been difficult days for our brothers and sisters in Israel, who as we speak, are experiencing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. I have found myself this week checking the various news sources every few hours for updates on the situation. I have also felt what I think many Jews in the Diaspora feel at times like this, a desire to be in Israel, to be with our people as they experience this terror.
Thank God that Israel has developed such effective ways of protecting its people from the indiscrimate launching of rockets at population centers, now reaching as far as Haifa. The Iron Dome defense system has managed to successfully intercept ninety percent of the rockets it targets. Israel’s siren warning system gives advance notice to Israelis so that they have time to reach a nearby bomb shelter. The result has been an extremely low casualty rate thus far. For this we must be grateful and pray that it continue.
Nevertheless, the terror and psychological trauma of living under constant threat is awful, especially for children.
The Israeli public is almost universally behind the military’s efforts to defend the population against hundreds of rockets that are being launched with the explicit goal of killing and terrorizing civilians.
The IDF has targeted Hamas’ military and command centers, taking great efforts to limit civilian casualties, including calling cell phones in advance to warn residents to evacuate. Hamas, which deliberately locates its weapons in civilian areas, has issued calls for civilians to congregate at those sites so that they can be human shields. That the Israeli military has destroyed more than 1,000 underground rocket launchers, smuggling tunnels, command centers, and other strategic locations with only 100 deaths is extraordinary, and suggests a concerted effort to limit harm to the Palestinian population.
Nevertheless, every life is precious. Every human is created in the image of God, and we must never delight in the death and suffering of the innocent. While I am glad for the low casualty rate in Israel, I find myself feeling terrible when think about what it must be like for someone trapped in Gaza.
Sadly, it feels like we have been here before. In 2008, Israel invaded Gaza in reponse to rocket fire in Operation Cast Lead. In 2010, Israel launched air strikes in reponse to Hamas rockets in Operation Pillar of Defense. This track record suggests that violence might not bring about the goal that I think all reasonable people share: in the short term, the halting of rocket fire; amd in the long term, peace.
Indeed, violence so often begets more violence. This current crisis has come about due to violent acts spiralling out of control. First was the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens: Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, by three suspected terrorists from Hebron. Then came the revenge murder of an Arab teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, by three Jewish terrorists. Since then, the violence has only escalated.
This morning’s Torah portion, Pinchas, shows us that there are threats that must be met with violence, but warns of the slippery slope towards which unchecked passion and vengeance can lead.
The Parashah continues a tale that began at the end of last week’s portion.
The Israelites, specifically the men, consort with Midianite (or in one reference, Moabite) women, who have been luring them to sacrifice to their foreign gods. Predictably, this provokes God’s anger, and a plague results that indiscriminately strikes the innocent along with the guilty.
What is going on here is nothing less than an existential threat to the entire nation. The idolatry of the Israelites threatens the moral integrity of the people, while the plague threatens their physical existence.
Something must be done to counter this threat.
Pinchas, the son of Eleazar the High Priest and Moses’ great nephew, takes immediate action. He grabs a spear, and publicly impales an Israelite named Zimri and a Midianite named Cozbi. This bold act stops the sinning in its tracks, calms God’s wrath, and ends the plague – but not before 24,000 Israelites have already been killed.
This morning’s Torah portion, named after Pinchas, continues the story with God’s enthusiastic approval and endorsement of the hero. “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the Priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me…” (Numbers 25:11)
God continues with a blessing for Pinchas and his future descendants. “Behold I give to him b’riti shalom, ‘my covenant of peace.'” (Ibid. 25:13)
This glorification of Pinchas’ zealous actions does not sit well with our Sages. A midrash in the Palestinian Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) describes how the elders of Israel disapprove of Pinchas taking matters into his own hands without first going through a judicial process. They fear that permitting zealous actions is a recipe for disaster. Without a trial, how can we distinguish between an impassioned believer carrying out God’s will and a fired-up individual acting out on his own whims and desires. The purpose of a judicial system is to remove the passion and zeal which so often ends in violence and injustice.
The elders of Israel are so terrified of what Pinchas represents that they want to excommunicate him, but a heavenly spirit comes to overrule them, affirming that Pinchas’ zeal has been only for the sake of God.
Pinchas’ reward is a brit shalom, an everlasting covenant of peace. On its surface, it is a promise that Pinchas need not fear revenge from the families of those he has just killed. On a deeper level, God’s granting a covenant of peace is a warning. Yes, passion for God is a good thing. Stepping in boldly to avert a crisis or to combat evil is sometimes necessary. But we have seen too many cases throughout history, up to and including the present time, of impassioned people acting out of their own selfish interests, claiming that it is God whom they serve.
This is the rhetoric of Hamas, and it is also the rhetoric of the three Jewish murderers of the innocent Arab teenager.
Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the nineteenth century principal of the Volozhin Yeshiva, explains that God’s promise to Pinchas of a brit shalom, a covenant of peace, is a blessing “that he should not be quick-tempered or angry. Since, it was only natural that such a deed as Pinhas’ should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.” (Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Ha’amek Davar, in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 331)
The brit shalom is a protection against the burning passion buried in each of our hearts that pushes us to violence and revenge, that causes us to gloat over the fall of our enemies, and that leads us to dehumanize the other.
At a time such as we now face, we need the blessing of a brit shalom more than ever. As the Israel Defense Forces uses violence to legitimately combat Hamas and protect the citizens of Israel, the risk of us succumbing to our inner zeal rises.
I am heartened by the outpouring of anger and deeply-felt embarrassment by Jews across the religious and political spectrum at the evil murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. In the last week, thousands of Israelis have paid condolence visits to the Abu Khdeir family. It reassures me that we have not lost our moral compass.
Let us pray for a brit shalom, a covenenat of peace in our own hearts and the hearts of the Jewish people to always exercise restraint, to always treasure the sanctity of human life, whether a Jewish child hiding in a bomb shelter in Beer Sheva, or a Muslim child living in Gaza. May we always have the sense to stop those among our own people who would act out on their rage and desire for vengeance.
Let us also pray for the other kind of brit shalom, a covenant of peace with human beings who today are our enemies, but who may one day, God willing may it be soon, become our friends.
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